Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) is leading the race for House Whip, the third-ranking position in House leadership, and he’s running on his conservative bonafides.
The chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the Republicans’ 170-member strong conservative caucus, Scalise is pitching colleagues on the importance of having someone from a “red” state at the leadership table who will push Speaker John Boehner to the right.
But Scalise has long faced doubts about his ideological purity from conservatives, and now some of the very people who worked under him at the RSC are leveling the charges.
In interviews with four aides who worked for Scalise while he helmed the study group, the staffers, who spoke under the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, described being actively prevented from working towards the RSC’s traditional goal of moving the GOP conference and its leadership to the right.
Scalise, they said, would instruct his office to soften criticism of even policies he personally disagreed with in order to reduce political exposure to the RSC’s fairly broad membership – as well as make life easier for GOP leadership.
A leading point of contention were the RSC’s “legislative bulletins,” which include detailed summaries of each bill and amendment, including any “conservative concerns” the RSC had about those bills.
The guides have long been valued reading to GOP lawmakers, and under past chairmen, the bulletins had the power to sway a lot of votes. But the documents have become watered down under Scalise, former aides said.
“Staff were encouraged as a whole not to issue conservative concerns. It created almost a policy of appeasement in RSC with a clear goal of trying to elevate Scalise personally,” says a former RSC staffer who chafed under the restrictions.
“Trying to get conservative concerns in a legislative bulletin at all under Chairman Scalise was practically impossible,” a second former RSC staffer said.
The bulletins are ruthlessly edited by Scalise’s policy director, Brett Horton, whose previous job was at the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee under Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu. In contrast to the independent judgment of the documents previously, aides were instructed to use summaries of bills published by House committees as sources.
There’s always been tension between the RSC, which largely acted as an autonomous in-house think tank for the conservatives in the GOP conference, and its chairman, a politician with constituents to represent.
But Scalise and his chief of staff, Lynnel Ruckert, were particularly aggressive in telling RSC aides that Scalise’s agenda came first.
Aides were reminded, “Remember: you’re always wearing the Scalise jersey,” and draft RSC white papers were secretly ferried to his district office for review as to whether businesses back home might be impacted by the policy recommendations.
For staffers used to being largely autonomous under former Chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH), it was culture shock.
“I don’t have a lot of respect for Chairman Scalise. He seems to be in this for himself,” the second aide said.
Scalise’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In a recent interview in his Capitol office, he described his role as RSC chairman to try to work internally to advance conservative goals. “We’ve worked to get leadership further to where we are,” he said, citing back-room discussions with Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy to help find the votes for a version of the Farm Bill that split agriculture subsidies from food stamps.
In past years, RSC Chairman has often been a public role, rallying the grassroots in the media. With Scalise, it can be difficult for reporters to pin down exactly what his position is on an issue.
To critics, one episode in particular underscores Scalise’s willingness to utilize his chairmanship to advance personal and parochial agendas: a flood insurance bill that passed in March over the objections of the relevant committee chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) – himself a former RSC Chairman – as well as 76 members of the RSC who voted no.
The bill reversed reforms in a 2012 law designed to put the financial onus of the government flood insurance program, currently $24 billion in debt, on buildings in particularly flood-prone areas.
As the new reforms began to be implemented, lawmakers in flood-prone districts faced an outcry from constituents, although proponents of the law maintain many of their objections were misguided.
As a push to soften rate increases led by Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Michael Grimm (R-NY) began to gain steam, Hensarling and his staff worked internally to offer four separate legislative proposals to address the concerns, none of which satisfied the growing lobby to significantly rewrite the 2012 law.
At a February meeting in Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office with roughly fifteen members, the issue boiled over.
“You promised you would fix this,” an agitated Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) told Cantor, his voice rising.
Cantor told the group, “We’re not leaving this room until we work something out.” He didn’t mean with Hensarling’s blessing, who was cut out of the negotiations from that moment on. Scalise, in the meeting, didn’t object.
The RSC’s member discussion of the issue was stacked in favor of the new bill’s proponents, critics say, with a number of experts brought in to tout the effort and only Hensarling left to defend the spending reforms.
Finally, the bill passed in early March following negotiations with Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). Scalise took credit for passing the bill and celebrated conspicuously on the House floor with Waters, several people said.
Scalise told a local newspaper he had delivered 120 GOP votes to Waters to help pass the bill, and the vote was cited as a “tryout” for Scalise for a future run at whip.
“We had to build a coalition, and we had to overcome a lot of obstacles,” he said, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate.
Both Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), Scalise’s rivals for the whip slot, voted no, as did Hensarling and the other former RSC chairmen still in Congress.
Roskam, currently the chief deputy whip, has a conservative voting record but faces some concern from the right about his ties to the GOP establishment. Stutzman, a late entrant, is a newcomer to the Capitol and seen as something of a protest candidacy to Scalise’s. Jordan, the former RSC chairman, is whipping for Stutzman.
From the beginning of his chairmanship, Scalise faced doubts from the right. A group of former lawmakers who started RSC, dubbed “the founders,” anointed Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) as their pick, but Scalise challenged him and won the secret ballot vote narrowly. Helping propel Scalise to victory was the assistance of GOP leadership, who had placed calls whipping support for him, something that frequently comes up in discussions with lawmakers on the right flank of the conference even today.
After winning the chairmanship, Scalise faced an early decision: what to do about Paul Teller.
Teller, now an aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who had worked for six previous RSC chairmen, had significant clout inside the Capitol, much more so than ordinary aides.
Considered an “American hero” by officials at the Heritage Foundation and other “outside groups,” Teller’s influence inside the Capitol – he could effortlessly rally opposition to bills with his easy access to members – was immense but sometimes caused tension with members.
Firing Teller out of the gate would have caused a backlash, so Scalise opted to keep him on. However, over time, the former aides said, he and Ruckert took steps to muzzle his influence.
Although little escaped publicly, inside the RSC’s offices a war was playing out between Teller and Ruckert, involving shouting matches, internal politics, and petty feuding. An example of the latter: Teller’s name was removed from the RSC’s letterhead, where it had been displayed prominently under past chairmen. More importantly, Teller’s responsibilities and authority to speak on behalf of the organization were severely curtailed.
Scalise wasn’t the only RSC chairman to have an intense relationship with Teller. RSC staffers are a “bunch of policy wonks who don’t have a political bone in their body,” a former senior aide said, explaining Scalise’s actions.
But Scalise was the only one to fire him, which he did last December. In preparation, Scalise compiled a dossier of evidence against Teller showing he had leaked information about internal deliberations to outside conservative groups.
Scalise was “very methodical in building a case against him,” a former GOP leadership aide noted.
Top conservatives like Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) backed the move; however, it was a serious blow to Scalise’s credibility in the larger conservative movement.
Teller, who declined to comment, wasn’t the only one ousted. At least seven other RSC aides were either fired or left on their own during Scalise’s chairmanship, an unusually high turnover rate for the organization.
“Everyone was scared. You were constantly in fear that you were going to be the one who was fired next,” the first former RSC aide said.
And they didn’t leave with a favorable view of Scalise, or, in particular, Ruckert.
“Scalise was leadership’s horse in the RSC race; it’s ridiculous to think he’s going to be conservatives’ horse in this one. It’s disappointing to see the forthrightness and integrity of past chairmen replaced with empty press releases and rudderless waffling,” a third aide said.
A fourth aide was more sympathetic to Scalise’s style.
“Different Chairmen lead differently. Jim Jordan, the previous chairman, had his staff on a long leash, allowing them the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Scalise, on the other hand, wanted a tighter-run shop, so he had a much shorter leash for his staffers. His personal staffers have always been kept on a short leash. Having free reign and then being put under closer watch definitely rubbed some RSC staffers the wrong way, but the motivation was not malicious, merely a different leadership style,” the aide said.
One thing no one disagreed on: It was eminently clear to everyone that Scalise had his sights on House leadership and was working towards that while at RSC.
The deeper question is whether a Capitol Hill institution was subjugated to his personal ambition.